Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Graduation 2020: Squirm a Little

This week, throughout the United States, amidst the unprecedented pandemic of our day, academic commencements large and small have been taking place, virtually. In my own family – my twins, my daughter-in-law, my nephew, and the husbands of two of my nieces earned the right this year to don mortar boards and robes to mark this rite of passage. We celebrated with a homemade commencement in our garden, various virtual renditions of pomp and circumstance online, and an extended family gathering via Zoom to toast our graduates.

Most people get antsy about 3 minutes into a commencement ceremony, usually before the invocation is complete. Not me. I cannot get enough. In addition to our family commencements, I watched Obama’s Graduation Together and Oprah’s Commencement speech to Tennessee State University Class of 2020. I even listened to a number of commencement speeches for the class of 2020 on iHeart Radio. It does seem that this year, there are some common threads about mental health that are striking, and worth noting.

1. Have Compassion. In this period of uncertainty and confusion, Oprah invited graduates to devote time to look inside and take care of themselves, reflecting that the “deepest self-care is at once caring for the human family.” Psychology research supports the idea that cultivating self-compassion is associated with improved mental health and well-being. When we practice self-compassion, we see a psychophysiological response of reduced arousal (reduced heart rate and skin conductance) and increased parasympathetic activation (increased heart rate variability). These patterns promote effective emotion regulation in times of adversity. Self-care is truly at the heart of mental health.

2. Build Community. No one does big things by themselves is a poignant message coming from a former president of the Unites States. Some presidents might think it’s all about them, but President Obama calls on 2020 high school graduates to be alive to one another’s struggles and to respond by building communities for the good. Obama recognizes that strong communities are essential to the future of humanity. Conversely, without healthy communities, we know loneliness is life threatening. Social isolation is associated with elevated blood pressure and cortisol levels, and disrupted sleep, all of which have negative impacts on mental health and overall well-being.

3. Cultivate a Positive Attitude. Bill and Melinda Gates wrote their commencement speech to the class of 2020 at the invitation of the Wall Street Journal and iHeart Radio. They stood fast in their optimism that progress is possible and that the challenges of today’s world also present opportunities for this year’s graduates to imagine and engage in building a healthier and more equitable future. No surprise that Bill and Melinda Gates have a lot of data behind them. Studies of mental health and positive attitude reveal time and again that both dispositional and explanatory optimism have positive effects on mood, cardiac health, and even life expectancy.

4. Embrace the Uncomfortable. Ely Manning of the NY Giants invited 2020 graduates to squirm. JED Foundation says we need to seize the awkward and Bryan Stevenson, in his 2018 Hopkins commencement speech, implored graduates to get close and get uncomfortable. The common thread is that developing the tolerance for discomfort is the foundation that gives birth to strength and resilience. COVID-19 makes us all uncomfortable in so many ways. The invitation is to grow in our resilience so that we can have the impact in the world that we imagine and desire.

5. Choose Now. Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels urged 2020 graduates to avoid languishing in suspended animation during this pandemic. Rather than thinking that life has been put on pause and that adult life will begin when this pandemic ends, he invites grads to recognize that this moment is not a way station but rather a defining chapter, and to act now. Choosing wisely and making high stakes decisions in circumstances of uncertainty and ambiguity is challenging. It is also an area of vast psychological study. Put simply, at such times, good decisions are most likely achieved by a consultative process that synthesizes diverse points of view, including those that come from people both inside and outside the decision maker’s immediate circle.

No vaccine can protect us from the vicissitudes of life. Showing compassion, building community, cultivating a positive attitude, embracing the uncomfortable, and choosing now are perennial graduation themes. They are always good for our mental health. Especially important for our 2020 grads, they are good reminders for the rest of us, too.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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